Today South Africa is the continent's "promised" land, but the challenges they face are enormous and the consequences critical. Struggling out of the deep economic hole created by sanctions, South Africa is strapped with at least 50% illiteracy in a population of roughly 50 million people, 80% of them black and poor, with several million more illegal residents streaming in from neighboring countries even worse off..

Enormously grateful to Nelson Mandela's Government of National Unity (GNU) which miraculously skirted civil war in the country, both white and black populations bear few grudges. They don't have time. People must be educated, whole systems revised. It is with enormous energy and optimism that South Africa reinvents itself, and this very much includes every publisher in the land. Books play a critical role.

"Few of us in our lifetimes are given the privilege of participating in the restructure of our country," says Kate McCallum, MD of Oxford University Press Southern Africa. President Mandela himself bets the future of the country on a well-educated and well-informed population.

No one doubts that as South Africa g s, so g s the continent.

Southern Africa is still a small market, worth now close to $400 million, 70% of which is some form of educational publishing. The Republic of South Africa is the most recent of the three countries in this report to establish full democracy, just two years ago, and the first to do so peacefully. Zimbabwe (the former Rhodesia) settled their own civil war in 1980, Namibia (the former South West Africa) in 1989.

All three strive to educate desperately poor populations in weak economies. Fortunately their problems are sufficiently similar, to each other and to the rest of Africa, that some solutions for one will work for many.

"There is a huge hunger for books throughout Africa, and great potential for intra-Africa trade" says Paul Brickhill, a Zimbabwian publisher, book retailer and vital force in bringing African publishers together for two decades. "But the whole system is new and very underdeveloped, from book distribution to book stores to book readers. The bulk of the industry has emerged only in the last 20 years."

As the strongest economy with the largest literate population and the most advanced publishing industry, South Africa can help, though they have plenty of catching up to do. The National Party which came to power in 1948 and established the Bantu Education system in 1954. Before that, black education was exclusively provided by the missionaries.

The GNU has now promised to provide each child equal basic education in his mother tongue. They have named 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English and nine tribal languages, only some of which are linguistically related. The Department of Education and Training (DET) estimates this will nearly triple the cost textbooks, to $600 million for each of the next three years.

At the same time, the DET must discard the whole Bantu system inherited form the National Party. Their Curriculum 2000, applauded by publishers and educators alike in theory, will require a complete rewrite of every textbook and re-training of every teacher, at a time when both are already in short supply and finances are severely limited. Yet Curriculum 2000 is scheduled for implementation across the board by 1998, literally tomorrow in publishers' time. At the same time, the needs of a huge illiterate adult population must be addressed.

Similar problems are faced everywhere in Africa. Neighbors like Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana have superior educational systems now, but they are too poor, too small and too localized to lead the continent, and their languages are all different. Each African country makes important contributions to the common goals, however, as events like the Zimbabwe Book Fair are proving.

Even in South Africa, the biggest publishing market in sub-Sahara Africa, only four publishers have a turnover above $10 million, only 20 above $2 million, and nearly all of these are educational publishers. The country's profound needs have brought them together in a remarkably cohesive way under one umbrella organization, the Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA), an alliance of textbook publishers (formerly the South African Publishers Association), the international publishers (the International Book Distributors Association) and the anti-apartheid publishers (the Independent Publishers Association of South Africa). Add to those the many new publishing houses since 1990.

PASA works closely with the Associated Booksellers of South Africa, the National Book Development Council of South Africa and is now recognized by the International Publishers Association.

Under the current leadership of Basil van Rooyen, MD of Southern Book Publishers, PASA has launched a series of short courses for publishers, both beginner and intermediate, something brand new for the country. They are working with the Government to help develop effective textbook curricula and content. And they support the efforts of neighboring organizations to pull the continent as a whole together.

Probably the brightest spot in the international publishing map of Africa today is the young Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Last year here, Frankfurt Book Fair Director Peter Weidhaus learned that book fairs can be "fun". Set in a public garden shaded by large old masasa, jacaranda and spathodia trees, the ZIBF is as much a party as a book fair. Live African and fusion music, book readings, artistic activities and delicious African cuisine draw a crowd of current and future book lovers on the weekend. During the week, publishers swap deals and ideas, this year among 120 stands displaying the titles from 22 African countries. Some major exhibitors have built permanent African thatch shelters on the site. A new thatch house this year houses the ZIBF organizers.

The energy and imagination that fires this remarkable pan-African event comes from the rich oral and print traditions of Africa, but organizer Trish Mbanga and her small team must accept a great deal of credit. So successfully have they drawn Africa together with this fair, PASA has promised not to launch a competing one.

Readers have just missed ZIBF 96. Next year it will be August 1-9,1997 and Mbanga promises it will be even better!

As a trade book market, however, Southern Africa is still small potat s, with most of the titles coming from the UK and the Americans much more focused on academic markets. But the future is the new African elusive goal so far.

"We're going to spend a considerable time here developing a reading culture," says Western Cape Provincial Librarian Andre Steenkamp, a major buyer of trade titles. "Right now 48% of our book circulation is in the Afrikaans language and most of the rest in English. We are buying everything we can get our hands on in the other indigenous African languages, just to encourage this new market, but the books don't circulate. We don't know yet what these new literates will want to read."

It took Asia 20 years after World War II to develop the economic miracle that now brings prosperity to that region. Twenty years to educate a work force, to develop a reading culture. Africa's publishers must find new approaches and new technologies that will shorten that time considerably.

After visiting this remarkable part of world and these incredibly energetic and inspiring people, it is easy to believe that if anyone can make Africa work, they will.

NOTE: Many thanks to the publishers, booksellers and distributors of South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe for their unstinting cooperation and generous hospitality.